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'Mad Men': Is There a Little Bit of Betty in All of Us?

Posted: 15/04/2013 00:00

Mad Men is back after a 10-month absence, relying, as ever, on the power of suggestion to tell us what has been happening to our characters since we last saw them, rather than crude recaps. Exposition is for losers.

In the middle of all the usual talk about Don Draper's tormented soul - not to mention the manhood of Jon Hamm, the actor who plays him - and how Christina Hendricks' body is a victory for feminism (apparently), comes another popular topic: just how awful Betty (Draper) Francis is.

Don's ex-wife, played beautifully and blandly by January Jones, isn't just the character viewers love to hate - they really hate her. Despite playing the wronged wife while ex-husband Don jumped in and out of crumpled sheets all over Manhattan, Betty's usually cold demeanour, especially toward her own children, has singled her out as a popular figure of derision.

Whether she's floating around distractedly looking gorgeous in a variety of period fashions or levelling a tongue-lashing at her smart-mouthed daughter Sally, the erstwhile Mrs Draper can do no right for Mad Men's hyper-critical viewers. While her co-stars are 'complex and interesting', Betty is dismissed as mean, spiteful, spoiled and boring. But, that's rot, I say. Betty is more like any of us than we care to admit. Maybe that's why we're so fond of disliking her.

Betty has spent much of Mad Men's five and a bit seasons supremely bored. Finding herself with everything she thought she wanted - beauty, a dashing husband, a house in the 'burbs and those delightful children - she quickly realised what a crock it all was. The dashing husband dashes out the door to work and gets in late; the children answer back; the walls of her house close in on her and the beauty, as Betty finds in season six when she piles on the pounds, is devastatingly temporary. Betty had ambitions like everybody else, but was told being beautiful and having a family was all that mattered, so she went with it, only to discover she wasn't living for herself at all. Now, beauty aside (in my case at least), haven't we all felt like that at one time or another?

That nothing really ever happens, or is likely to, is one of Betty's biggest bugbears. Madame Bovary she is not. In an earlier season, the deluded Betty bought herself a fainting couch, yet sadly her life lacked sufficient excitement for her to lose consciousness for even a second.

Betty expresses her dissatisfaction in the only way she knows how: passive-aggressively. She eschews emotion for simmering resentment, occasionally letting the sparks fly, allowing us a peek at the madness within, like an immaculately coiffed volcano.

Haven't we all had those crazy five-minute madnesses, where we've wanted to stir up our placid waters and create a tsunami? Betty's mask slips all too rarely but it's wonderfully random when it does. She shoots the neighbours' birds with a rifle (complete with cigarette dangling from her mean, tight mouth), has anonymous sex in a bar just after discovering she is pregnant with an unwanted third child, and attempts to titillate her vanilla husband with a salacious scenario involving the rape of her daughter's sleepover buddy (a truly jarring scene from the first episode of the new season which has had the anti-Betty brigade, and even her supporters, scratching their heads to justify). All just to get a reaction, even if just from her own conscience. She rarely succeeds.

Although her realm is the 1960s, Betty would, in fact, have been perfect for the Twitter generation - half the time she'd be posting cutesy Instagram pictures of cakes she'd baked or boasting about her home decor, and the rest throwing out shock-jock curveball rants about politicians, immigrants and Honey Boo Boo. Like most of us, her ambitions would've been left at the bottom of a sock drawer. She'd probably have a really boring blog - updated less than fortnightly and never spellchecked. Social media and technology would give Betty the chance to vent, to free her anger -- something no amount of trying on pretty dresses for her husband or chastising her brattish children could ever do.

Mad Men's characters are complex creatures, multi-layered contradictions with more hang-ups than the naked eye can see. But, as one internet commenter on a blog I recently read put it, they're also "just a bunch of jerks". And that's what's so great about them. They're just like us, but forty-odd years ago.

So instead of slating Betty, we should perhaps cut her some slack. Despite having every advantage and doing everything right, she still can't quite pull it off. She thought she had it all, but once you have it all, you miss the idea of 'more'. Her calm exterior conceals a maelstrom of self-doubt and horror beneath. As those of us who simmer through our days, saving our outbursts for the internet, can testify, it doesn't get any easier, even if you have got your very own dashing Don waiting on the other side of the threshold and a fainting couch at your disposal.

 

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